By Madeleine Bunting (THE GUARDIAN, 15/08/08):
One of my best friends is a Finn. She came to England at 16, but when it came to giving birth to her first baby 13 years later, there was no hesitation: she went home. When she returned, along with her stories of state of the art healthcare, she brought tangible evidence of the largesse of the Nordic welfare state: each new mother was given a box of exquisite new baby clothes and equipment. Everything was a perfect mint green and lavender. In contrast, when it was my turn several years later to give birth in the UK in an overcrowded, dirty hospital, a harassed nurse handed me a plastic bag stuffed with leaflets advertising baby products and a couple of free samples. In Finland, the state signalled its commitment to the wellbeing of each new citizen with an abundance of gifts; in the UK, it was a crash course in consumer capitalism.
Ever since those mint green baby clothes – and the tales of extraordinary maternity and paternity leave established decades before the UK grudgingly conceded anything remotely comparable – I’ve been intrigued and bewildered by how the Scandinavian model works. I’m not talking about the nuts and bolts of how programmes of health, education and welfare are organised, though successive British politicians have pilfered ideas – most recently David Cameron’s interest in Sweden’s self-governing, parent-run schools. No, what fascinates me are the cultural expectations and understandings that underpin the political consensus that those countries’ huge and expensive welfare states have enjoyed for nearly 50 years.
On successive visits to Denmark, Norway and now, just back from two weeks in Finland, I’ve kept bumping up against the same puzzling phenomenon: a kind of unquestioning assumption of how things should be, a form of social control about the way to behave and one’s responsibilities to others. The point when it became starkly apparent in Finland was at Sunday family lunch in a country barn restaurant; every table was full but all you could hear were murmured whispers and the scrape of cutlery on china – until our families arrived, anarchic, squabbling and full of chatter, despite my Finnish friend’s attempts to get us to be quiet.
“Everyone knows exactly what you have to do in every circumstance, everyone tries to do it, confident that everyone else is doing it and anyone who fails will be subjected to the justified scorn of everybody,” says Andrew Brown of the remarkable degree of mutual trust and expectation that characterises Scandinavian social relations.
Brown’s thought-provoking book on Sweden, Fishing in Utopia, explores how this powerful social fabric has been eroding over the past 25 years. He argues that a set of social relations born from Calvinist protestantism and the intense interdependence of small rural communities is unlikely to outlast the decline of both. Consumerism is a direct challenge to the ingrained self-restraint of countries whose grinding peasant poverty is only at a couple of generations’ remove. As Brown points out, credit cards were only allowed in the late 90s.
Such restriction on personal freedom was regarded as legitimate to achieve general social wellbeing. Central is the concept of jäntelagen, adds Brown, defined as the “Scandinavian code of egalitarian conformity which absolutely forbids anyone to feel superior to their neighbours”. It’s an astonishing contrast to the UK where increasingly it can seem that superiority – and the struggle to achieve it – is the dominant social currency of every type of human interaction, from the rat race of corporate bankers to the knife crime of inner cities.
It’s easy to romanticise this distinctive political culture and its postwar achievements. It’s as close as anywhere to Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a democracy built on the virtues of small farmers – independent-minded but with a commitment to the common good. Frequently one encounters its generosity, humanity and deep democratic ethos: in the Danish tradition of pedagogy and its professionalisation of the skills of nurturing human relationships and development; or in the accessibility of nature in Finland, with its tradition of retreating to the woods and lakes for the pleasures of wood-cutting, swimming and fishing. “Every man’s right” ensures that a Finn can always find a place to pitch a tent and make a fire. Unlike the UK, this is not a landscape controlled by land ownership.
But it’s not hard to see this conformity can also be stiflingly oppressive. In particular, it struggles to cope with cultural diversity, and at its worst, it can even begin to sound like racism. One Swede in Brown’s book talks about the need for 100% “social control” in which “everyone works together”: you could call it consensual authoritarianism, and it is profoundly foreign to most Britons. Despite the persistent illusions of the liberal left, it’s part of why the Scandinavian welfare state has been one of the region’s least successful exports.